Continental Philosophy: NASL honchos thought Euros like Cruyff (right) would kick-start American soccer. Credit: Courtesy of Petar Baralic

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The MLS’ signing of David Beckham for silly money will likely trigger yet another run on old foreigners to boost soccer’s stateside appeal. The original Golden Oldies binge in America ended badly more than 20 years ago, but, locally, it had its moments—all thanks to Johan Cruyff.

Before the MLS, there was the NASL. In the late ’70s, the North American Soccer League decided the game’s survival in the New World depended on procuring aging international stars whose names were generally bigger than their talents by the time they arrived. That trend was kicked off by the New York Cosmos’ signing of Pelé in 1975. The team soon also brought in Euro talent including German striker Franz Beckenbauer and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia.

Before D.C. United, there were the Washington Diplomats, and the NASL’s superstar tsunami finally hit locally in 1980, when the Dips signed Cruyff. He had been wooed by the Cosmos for years and had even played a few exhibition games with the New Yorkers alongside Pelé, but he never joined the team as a full-time member. Gulf & Western, the corporate giant that eventually became Viacom, owned Madison Square Garden and had bought a controlling interest in the Diplomats after seeing what impact the Cosmos’ talent binge had done for that squad. It began courting Cruyff.

“Management of the team told me if I could get Cruyff, I should go get him,” says Gordon Bradley, the Diplomats’ coach from 1978 to 1980, from his winter home in Florida. “Whatever it takes.”

The Dips’ new management paid $1 million for the rights to Cruyff and another $1.5 million in salary. He was already a Dutch icon because of his heroics in World Cups with Holland and European Cups with Barcelona and Ajax. He made moves no player before him could execute; the most famous of which—a twisting feint that leaves a defender running one way and him the other, the way Allen Iverson’s crossover dribble once did—is still called the Cruyff Turn.

Cruyff had arrived in the United States in 1979 to play for the NASL’s Los Angeles Aztecs, but after one season, Cruyff bailed for the Dips and an outrageous amount of money for a soccer player in this country at that time—or now, even. (The MLS had a reported salary cap of less than $2 million per team for the 2006 season, more than a quarter-century after Cruyff’s windfall. And though of late it appears league officials enforce the cap rule about as loosely as NBA refs do edicts against traveling, it remains true that many D.C. United stars played for less than $30,000 last season.)

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But Gulf & Western’s investment paid quick and obvious dividends. When Pelé signed with the Cosmos, the Diplomats were playing their home games in a football stadium at Woodson High School in Fairfax; his visit here in the summer of 1976 drew about 11,000 to the suburban campus. But when the Pelé-less Cosmos visited during Cruyff’s first year in uniform, RFK Stadium was the Dips’ home, and even that venue was too small.

“Johan Cruyff made us major-league,” says Carmine Marcantonio, a Diplomat midfielder from ’78 to ’80. “I remember when we played the Cosmos at RFK, with a crowd of around 55,000, and [Dips president] Steve Danzansky came into the dressing room at halftime, crying. He told us he never thought in his lifetime he’d see the day a soccer game would sell out RFK.”

Attendance for the year was up more than 62 percent from the previous season. Cruyff, though 33 years old and a chronic cigarette smoker—“He even smoked in the locker rooms at halftime, every game,” says Bradley—showed he was still capable of playing a different game than anybody else in the league.

“He was like a conductor, and we were his orchestra,” says Marcantonio. “He wasn’t like Pelé coming over—not being the player people remember. Cruyff could still do it all. There was incredible pressure on him not to ruin his reputation. He was aware people couldn’t do the things he could do. But he was the ultimate team guy, working as hard as anyone at practice, helping out everybody. The highlight of my career was sharing a field with him.”

Cruyff was named first-team All-NASL for 1980.

And when he was away from the field, he did community outreach: Cruyff did reports for the sports team on the local CBS affiliate, a job previously reserved for athletes who wore Redskins uniforms or were named Sugar Ray Leonard.

But even before the 1980 season was over, Gulf & Western realized that other cities weren’t going to throw money at players the way the Diplomats and Cosmos had, and thus the boom that the high-priced foreigners inspired in New York and D.C. wouldn’t be felt across North America. An exit in the first round of the playoffs didn’t help matters. Gulf & Western put the team up for sale, and when nobody met the asking price, the Diplomats folded. The Houston and Rochester, N.Y., franchises also dissolved.

“We knew this was fragile, the health of the league,” says Marcantonio. “We were playing too many games on artificial turf, on baseball diamonds, and on football pitches, not on fields meant for soccer. I guess North America wasn’t ready for major-league soccer at that time.”

But this city wasn’t without a pro soccer team—or Cruyff—for long. Before the 1981 season began, the Detroit Express moved here and changed its name to the Washington Diplomats, with owner Jimmy Hill hoping to take advantage of the fan base Cruyff and the Dips had built a year earlier. Cruyff had moved back to Europe and had agreed to play in Spain. But in the middle of the season, with the Express/Diplomats foundering, Hill threw all the team’s money into an offer to get Cruyff back to D.C. Cruyff took it.

“I remember the first day he showed up at practice after he came back,” says Jim Messemer, then the Dips’ backup goalie and only recently out of college. “The reverence for this guy was amazing. All our mouths were open. I’m a young guy. He was Johan Cruyff.”

To pay for Cruyff’s return, the owners sold team captain and NASL veteran midfielder Petar Baralic to Tulsa. Baralic refused to accept the transfer, however, and ultimately came back to the Diplomats roster. Baralic, who calls Cruyff the “best player ever to play the game,” has zero bitterness about the attempted sale.

“I understand that the team had to come up with money to pay him, but I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” says Baralic. “If you bring Cruyff, Maradona, or Pelé into today’s game, only Cruyff could play the way he used to, as fast and quick and strong as he was.”

Arriving in July, Cruyff stayed in Washington less than two months. But Messemer says he took full advantage of his brush with greatness.

“I would stay after practice every day with Johan, and he would practice penalty kicks,” Messemer says. “We’d do it for a long time—many, many kicks. I only touched one ball the entire season, and even that one went in the goal. Finally, I say, ‘Johan, what am I doing wrong?’ He told me he could see if I was just leaning in any way, and he would compensate to make sure I had no chance. I was a sponge for anything he’d say. For me, it was like God was talking from the mount.

“I still didn’t stop any,” he says.

Messemer also recalls talking to Cruyff, in between cigarettes, during halftime of a game at RFK against Toronto in August 1981. Cruyff pointed out that the Toronto goalie was playing up too far whenever the ball was at midfield, and so he had decided that on his first touch of the second half, he would be taking a shot.

“And after the half starts, Johan gets the ball, and from what had to be 60-plus yards, he kicks it over the goalkeeper’s head and into the net,” says Messemer, now living in the Bay Area and working in medical sales. “Right after he called it to me. The guy was a magician.” (The Washington Post reporter on the Diplomats’ beat in 1981, Michael Wilbon, only gave Cruyff credit for a strike of 40-plus yards.)

Just as the goalie couldn’t save Cruyff’s long shot, Cruyff couldn’t save the Diplomats or American professional soccer. The barely reincarnated Diplomats averaged only about 11,000 spectators that season and folded, along with six other NASL teams, at year’s end. The entire league went belly up after the 1984 season. Cruyff returned to Europe and after successful stints coaching Barcelona and Ajax, he founded the Johan Cruyff Welfare Foundation in Amsterdam. He was named Footballer of the Century by various soccer bodies in 1999. (Cruyff’s management in Luxembourg declined an interview request.)

Baralic now runs a soccer camp in Phoenix and shows videos of himself playing with and against Cruyff to campers. He also teaches students the Cruyff Turn.

“That’s the only move they’ve named after Johan Cruyff,” says Baralic. “If they named all the moves after him that should be named after him, kids would just get confused.”

Asked to compare Cruyff to America’s newest soccer import, Beckham, Baralic says there’s no point. But he offers one anyway.

“One was the best player in the world,” he says, “and the other is adored by little girls.”